The French traditions of Christmas – Les traditions françaises de Noël

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The French traditions of Christmas are an integral part of celebrating the birth of Jesus in France. It consists of many favourite customs such as the Christmas tree, the chocolate bûche, the Père Noël and the great Christmas Eve dinner. 


Advent calendars – les calendriers de l’Avent

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Advent Calendars are of course given to eager French children in anticipation of Christmas. Although the original versions contained pious images, the modern-day ones are filled with toys and chocolates. At Christmas time, the local postman or fire fighter will knock on every door, selling calendars for the coming New Year. The post office calendars are called “Almanach du facteur”.

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Alongside the calendar, another tradition is followed in the period of Advent: the decorated wreath with its four candles.

The Advent wreath is made up of fir and pine tree branches for the first Sunday of Advent. It is traditionally knotted with beautiful red bows and decorated with pine or fir cones. The Advent wreath is topped by four candles, symbolising the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. Each candle is lit on each of the Sundays before Christmas.

Read more about Advent in France.


Christmas tree – le Sapin de Noël

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Decorated with ornaments, glistening tinsel, blinking fairy lights and topped by a star, the Christmas tree has become an iconic figure of Christmas since its origins in the 16th century. This page will tell you when and where the tradition started and how it became a major part of the holiday festivities.

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In France, the Christmas tree first appeared in Alsace in 1521 and is called “sapin de noël” or “arbre de noël”. The tree, covered in red apples and lights, symbolised the venue of Christ: ‘the light that illuminates the world’. A fir tree is the best choice because they do not lose their leaves during winter, which doubles as a symbol of hope and eternal life. It is a more secular tradition than that of the nativity and thus more appreciated by protestant countries such as northern Germany and Scandinavia.

Read more about the French tradition of Christmas tree and Christmas decoration.


From Saint Nicolas to le Père Noël

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Santa Claus is called “Père Noël” (Father Christmas) in France. Like in any places celebrating Christmas, the French Père Noël wears a red suit and hat with white fur trimming with a broad black belt around his waist. He is tall and large, with ruddy cheeks and nose, bushy eyebrows, a white beard and moustache. His big brown sack is packed full of toys that will be delivered to every household at midnight, using his sleigh pulled by reindeers.

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The character of Santa was inspired by Saint Nicolas (Sinterklaas) who was originally the person distributing presents to German and French children on 6 December. Le Père Fouettard (the Bogeyman) is the counterpart of Saint Nicolas; he is covered in coal marks and is dressed all in black. He whips/spanks children who have misbehaved, just as Saint Nicolas rewards the good ones. With the transformation of Saint Nicolas into our modern-day Santa, le Père Fouettard has disappeared altogether, and has in fact given way to other characters, such as elves and reindeer.

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Saint Nicolas is celebrated in the Flanders, Lorraine and Alsace, as well as in Austria, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. When the Dutch migrated to the United States in the 19th century, they took with them the traditions of Saint Nicolas (Sinterklaas) which gradually evolved into Santa Claus.

On Christmas Eve, French children used to fill their shoes with carrots and treats for Père Noël’s donkey and leave them by the fireplace.

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More recently, the fireplace has been replaced by the Christmas tree. On Christmas night, Père Noël is said to travel the world, stopping at each and every house and climbing down through the chimney to leave presents for every child who has behaved themself through the past year. Sometimes, Père Noël’s donkey is substituted by seven magical reindeer who pull his sleigh, which is in fact an American tradition. On Christmas morning, children run to the Christmas tree to see what Santa has left under it for them. Often presents are opened on the evening of 24 December, after the Christmas Réveillon dinner or after the midnight mass.

Read more about Santa Claus.


Christmas’ presents – les cadeaux de Noël

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The presents offered to each other at Christmastime represent Saint Nicolas’s caring attitude for children. They are also symbolic of the gifts offered by the three wise men to Jesus on 6 January (at Epiphany), when they arrived at the stable.

Until the 1960’s, children in France were given an orange and a small gift for Christmas, which were placed in a stocking. Colourful wrapping paper and the tradition of buying more expensive gifts developed in line with an increase in American influence at the conclusion of the Second World War.


The Nativity scene – la Crèche de Noël

Nativity Scene of the church of Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois © French Moments

Nativity Scene of the church of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois © French Moments

The Gospel of Luke recounts the story of the Christ’s birth in a stable. His mother Mary wrapped him in cloths and laid him to sleep in the stable’s manger. The manger also features in the nativity (the reproduction of the birth of Christ in real or miniature size with live actors or figurines). Created around the 3rd century, this tradition started spreading amongst Christians. Nativities (with life-size statues of the characters) and plays have been displayed in public places for centuries.

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In the 4th century, the date of 25 December was decided upon as the birth date of Jesus and every year since then on 25 December, a figurine representing Jesus has been placed in the nativity (some nativities have it already present, though it is positioned upside down until Christmas Day). The first nativity known to man dates back to the 6th century, from which time writings describe the Christmas celebrations as being centred around the nativity: “ad praesepe”, in the church of St. Mary in Rome.

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In 1223, St. Francis of Assisi created the first living nativity with people from his church in Greccio. The characters were played by villagers and even included live animals. To represent the baby Christ, St. Francis put a consecrated host in the nativity, although it was later replaced by a live infant and, little by little, the custom spread. Apart from Provençal nativities and live ones, there are also Baroque, Neapolitan, Comtoise nativities (from Franche-Comté) as well as theatre nativity scenes (which were presented in the town hall square of Paris for 17 years).

During the banning of street nativities throughout the period of the French revolutions (closing of churches and suppression of the midnight mass), French households started reproducing the scene in their own house in miniature versions with clay figurines. This is when the Provençal Nativity started developing and has now become a very important tradition in the region. Contrary to the traditional nativity, the Provençal nativity mingles biblical characters (Mary, Joseph, the donkey and the ox, the three wise men) with typical Provençal villagers (the town crier, the poacher, the old man and woman: Grasset and Grasseto, the washerwoman, etc…).

Read more about the Nativity Scenes in France and Nativity scenes in Provence.


Christmas’ Eve in France – le Réveillon de Noël

The Réveillon is the big dinner French people share with their family on 24 December. The menu varies according to the region, but it is always an occasion for the family to sit down together and enjoy a variety of the most delicious dishes. Christmas is a time for celebration and thus the French indulge in luxury food and delicatessen. The Réveillon dinner can continue for up to six hours in some families and it is a very sacred tradition to the French. Eating at the table for a long time is also a social custom in France and it is intended to be a magical and unforgettable moment for children too. This is the perfect occasion for everyone to “blow out” one’s food budget and savour snails, frog’s legs, scallops (Coquilles Saint Jacques) and truffles.

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Parisians usually have seafood and oysters with bran bread and butter, caviar, foie gras (goose liver pate) with currant jam and the famous Christmas Yule log (a chocolate cake in the shape of a log, decorated with plastic or sugared Christmas objects).

In Alsace and Burgundy, a roasted stuffed turkey/capon with potatoes is more common. In Provence, turkey is also found on the table during the Réveillon, although some more religious families would argue that meagre meats, such as fish, should be eaten instead. Foie gras is also consumed in Provence, as is the dessert Yule log. However, it is tradition to eat 13 desserts in Provence, which are used to symbolise Jesus and his 12 apostles (orange, pear, apples, prunes, melon, white nougat, black nougat, pompe à l’huile [a flat cake filled with olive oil], sorb, dates, dry figs, almonds, nuts or hazel nuts, black raisins).

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French people take a great deal of care when creating decorations for the Christmas Eve dinner, particularly ornaments for the dining table, which must look elegant and inviting.

On Christmas Day, food is still a very important part of the day, particularly at lunch time when it is common to eat a particularly special dish, such as rabbit, coq au vin, vol-au-vent (bouchées à la reine), etc.


Midnight Mass in France

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On Christmas’ Eve, the midnight mass is part of the French traditions of Christmas however not everyone will be joining the church on that night. The religious service usually starts either at the stroke of midnight or a few hours before in all the cathedrals and parish churches all over France. Families get together in prayer and carol singing in celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ which tradition believed to have occurred at night.

Many churches are decorated for the occasion with Christmas candles, Christmas trees and a Nativity scene.

Some families come back home after the Mass to savour the French Christmas log and occasionally to open their Christmas presents.


Christmas markets – les marchés de Noël

Eguisheim Christmas Market, Alsace © French Moments

Eguisheim Christmas Market, Alsace © French Moments

All French Christmas markets find their origins in Alsace. Indeed the proximity of the region to Germany gives Alsatian and French Christmas markets a distinctly Germanic touch. This is apparent in the structure of the market stalls, which are little wooden houses resembling mountain chalets, covered in lights and decorations. The oldest Christmas market in Europe is that of Strasbourg, which dates back to 1570.

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Christmas markets mainly sell Christmas products or sometimes Christmas gifts but, more recently, some would say there has unfortunately been a large amount of commercialisation of the idea of Christmas markets. They can now be found all over France, with their distinctive wooden chalets (Paris, Aix-en-Provence, Colmar, Mulhouse, Montbéliard, Orléans, Metz, Nancy, Besançon, Rouen, Dijon, Reims, Annecy, Grenoble, Lille, Arras, Béthune, etc.).

Read more about Christmas markets in Alsace, Lorraine and Franche-Comté.


The colours of Christmas – les couleurs de Noël

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The traditional colours of Christmas are red, gold and green.

The flamboyant colour red evokes light and warmth (as well as Santa’s outfit).

Gold makes reference to the sun, which is not often visible in Northern France in December.

Green is a reminder of the evergreen trees, such as figs and holly which are … always green, regardless of the season or time of year. It is the colour of hope, as it is paired with the knowledge that spring will eventually return!


The Poinsettia flower: the Étoile de Noël

As in Northern America and in England, the poinsettia flower (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is widely used in Christmas floral displays, especially in Alsace. The Central America indigenous plant is appreciated for its red and green foliage that recalls the traditional colours of Christmas. The poinsettia originally grew in Mexico where it was known as the “Flower of the Holy Night“. It was first brought to America by Joel Poinsett in 1829 who gave the flower its current name.

The flower is also known in French as “étoile de Noël” for its star-shaped leaf pattern. The flower symbolises the Star of Bethlehem while the red colour represents the blood sacrifice of Jesus at the crucifixion.


Mistletoe and holly – le gui et le houx de Noël

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In France, mistletoe (le gui) is not only used for New Year’s Eve. It is also hung above the door, on beams and luminaries during the Christmas period to bring good fortune throughout the coming year. Pine cones (painted gold), walnuts and holly are also widely accepted symbols of Christmas.

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The legend goes that when Jesus and his family fled Egypt, as the soldiers of Herod where about to catch them, the holly (le houx) extended its branches to hide Jesus and his parents. Marie thus blessed the holly, announcing that it would remain eternally green, a symbol of hope and immortality.


Exchanging vows: les vœux de la nouvelle année

Exchanging vows for Christmas and the New Year has been practiced between neighbours for centuries in France. But with the invention of postal mail, the practice became more widespread, although it is still not as important as it is in other countries such as England.

Read more about New Year’s Eve in France.


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About Author

Pierre is a French/Australian who is passionate about France and its culture. He grew up in France and Germany and has also lived in Australia and England. In 2014 he moved back to Europe from Sydney with his wife and daughter to be closer to their families and to France. He has a background teaching French and holds a Master of Translating and Interpreting English-French with the degree of Master of International Relations and a degree of Economics and Management.

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